I don’t think I’ve ever actually been able to feel the brains of an entire subculture all thinking the same thing at the same time before that moment when the credits rolled on Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. That thought was: Oh my god. I need to write fan fiction right now.
Star Wars is a phenomenon of modern fandom, one beloved of fans who pride themselves on knowing every scrap of information about it, no matter how silly. So it’s inevitable that some of the most interesting stuff in the 40-plus years of storytelling are the what-if or never-was stories. Here, ranked according to how enjoyable, how consequential, and how interesting they are, are some the most important and thought-provoking alternate timelines in Star Wars history.
George Lucas’ original rough draft of the script for a movie that was to be entitled The Star Wars is a fascinating look at the earliest kernels of the multibillion-dollar, decades-long phenomenon we all know and love now. It’s also bad and unpolished in ways you’d expect from a rough draft, but also in ways that are very interesting.
One popular accusation leveled at Lucas is that, by the time he set about making the Star Wars prequel trilogy, he’d become so independent that he could basically ignore the sort of good advice that had saved his earlier works from themselves. I hate to dogpile the man, but this seems to support that theory: The Star Wars is a story filled with trade disputes, political speechifying that doesn’t really say anything of substance, and meetings of governing bodies quibbling over things. It somehow manages to incorporate those weird Jedi celibacy vibes while also having a young hero who chases women in ways that are gross.
It is also a repository of fascinating “what-ifs.” Darth Vader is not a wheezing bionic murder-samurai but a sneering general. Han Solo is a weird alien. Luke Skywalker is not the young hero on a Campbellian journey, but occupies the wizened old master role of Obi-Wan in the story that made it to theaters. “Annikin Starkiller” instead occupies the hero’s role. His father, Kane, is one of the last Jedi and a man who reveals that most of his physical body has been replaced by circuitry and prosthesis. There are so many ideas, themes and character names that are almost but not quite in a shape you recognize. It’s worth checking out the whole beautiful disaster for yourself, just to contemplate what might have been.
It is simply not fair to restrict this to officially licensed Lucasfilm (or now, Disney) properties. Star Wars may be a corporate-owned intellectual property, but darn it, it belongs to all of us on some level. This viewpoint was not shared by George Lucas’ lawyers in 2006 when they got a court to issue a cease-and-desist order to Lori Jareo, the author of Another Hope, which is a novel that reimagines the events of A New Hope.
Another Hope is fan fiction, and it isn’t particularly interesting fan fiction: Summaries talk about things like the personal politics of Darth Vader’s henchmen. As it hasn’t been available for sale since April of 2006, we’re unlikely to find a more detailed synopsis. (I can’t find it in any of the usual places.) I list it here because it touched off an actual discussion about fan fiction: Author Lev Grossman actually pointed out that writers who toil away at such an endeavor without any guarantee of notoriety or pay are not without virtue.
For the most part, Jareo got raked over the coals, though. Prolific sci-fi author John Scalzi was particularly mean on his blog at the time. It does sound as if Jareo was simply ignorant of copyright law. If literally any person at all read and enjoyed her work, however, then it is a fact she’s entertained more people writing fiction than I ever have, though.
Shadows of the Empire was what you’d call a “midquel,” set in between Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. The Nintendo 64 game adapts the 1996 novel by Steve Perry, in which Luke and Leia lay the groundwork for rescuing Han Solo with the help of totally-not-a-Han-stand-in Dash Rendar. Dash’s shoot-first attitude and rugged good looks made him the perfect protagonist for the N64 videogame, which remains fondly remembered by fans, even if it is harder than freeze-dried beskar.
In the game, as in the novel, Dash was just too good to survive the story, as fans would demand to know why such a badass gunslinger, hoverbike rider, and turret-gunner wasn’t right there alongside Han in the following movie. So, Perry and Nintendo both killed him off during his valiant final battle against the forces of the evil crime syndicate leader Xizor. Fight hard enough on the game’s highest difficulty setting, however, and players were rewarded with a cheeky surprise: Dash and his droid compatriot Leebo don’t die, but enter some kind of warp just as they finish blowing the reactor of Xizor’s space station. Most other characters would turn right around and pledge their undying loyalty to the Rebel Alliance after such a power move, but Dash is not about that life: He’d much rather chillax knowing he’s gone down in history as a hero, without the dying horribly part. In this N64-only alt-history, Dash was presumably on some beach-planet somewhere watching the second Death Star blowing up, enjoying early retirement.
1993’s Rebel Assault doesn’t look like much today: A computer game made up of a number of rail shooter and obstacle course segments. It occupies an important place in Star Wars game history though, being as it was the very first game LucasArts—the Lucasfilm game imprint—ever released on CD-ROM. This was as exciting a time to be a PC gamer as there ever has been. Everybody else was listening to bloops and beeps on their Nintendo or Sega while a little trifle of a game like Rebel Assault had full voice and orchestral scores, and several (very heavily compressed) clips from the actual movies.
The goal of most Star Wars games is to make you feel like you’re in the adventure. Rebel Assault did this by literally casting players as the hero “Rookie One” and then taking you on a mission that culminates in the destruction of the Death Star by your own hand. Presumably in this timeline, Luke is still whining about not being allowed to go to the Academy while you’re off stealing his thunder.
1998’s Star Wars: Rebellion was a grand strategy game that allowed you to become supreme field marshal of either the Empire or the Rebellion during the events of the original Star Wars trilogy. It was a pretty deep game, with players needing to balance diplomacy and military action to achieve their respective win conditions, which differed depending on which faction you picked.
What makes this a delicious alt-timeline affair, however, is the fact that each faction had hero characters, populated by the cast of the films and the deep bench of weirdos from the “Legends” line of tie-ins that was at the time considered canon. The mischief you could get up to with these players at your disposal was infinite in scope. It was entirely possible to park Luke or Leia on some safe planet somewhere and make some bit player like Crix Madine into the hero of the Rebellion. There were some strategies that actually benefited from this, since Luke would leave the team midway through the game to play out his hero’s journey and could actually get captured. It gave you the same feeling of upending your toy box as a kid, except with computer graphics, voices and epic space battles.
The actual Star Wars: The Force Unleashed games belong nowhere on this list, as they are terrible (though they did get Sam Witwer’s foot in the door, enabling the guy to voice Darth Maul in the many Star Wars TV shows). The first game’s Ultimate Sith Edition, however, provides us with one of the all-time great alternate timelines in Star Wars history.
In the main game, you play as “Starkiller,” a secret apprentice to Darth Vader whose Force powers belong in Dragonball Z more so than anything associated with this property. After hurling Star Destroyers out of orbit and crumpling up AT-ATs like cardboard, the canon ending of the game has you die like a punk to Emperor Palpatine. In a series of unlockable bonus missions, however, Starkiller becomes a total creature of the Emperor, living on to interfere in the events of the original trilogy of films. This involves a lightsaber duel with Luke Skywalker on Hoth that ends in the untrained hero turning to the Dark Side, and then to a mission on Endor where you are tasked with stopping the events that ended Return of the Jedi.
Like all absurdly grim alt-histories, it relishes killing beloved characters: You kill Obi-Wan Kenobi on Tatooine, murder Han and Chewie on Endor, and face off against Leia, discovering that the princess has trained to become a Jedi herself, complete with cool yellow lightsaber. Any alternate story where Leia comes into her own as a Jedi is a great one, it’s just unfortunate she also totally dies in this one.
Some gamers will claim Jedi Knight is one of, if not still the, best Star Wars game, and I don’t in the least begrudge these folks their opinion. For 1997, it was an incredible game with sprawling, puzzle-based level design, cutting-edge-for-the-time 3D graphics, and movie cutscenes that featured a live cast blasting and lightsabering their way through a story that remixes classic Star Wars themes to great effect. Kyle Katarn—the blaster-toting merc who made his debut in the game Dark Forces by delivering the plans to the original Death Star to the rebels—returns in this sequel, discovering that he has Force powers and that his slain father was guarding an ancient Jedi secret that could enable the Dark Jedi Jerec to unlock unlimited power!!! The game is notable for giving players access to dark and light-side powers and tallying how players comport themselves, long before a lot of games had that kind of morality system.
Roast too many civilians with Force lightning, and the game determines you have fallen to the Dark Side of the Force. This results in a crazy heel-turn: Rather than attempt to rescue his longtime partner Jan, Kyle just kills her. The game didn’t have too many other cutscenes after this point, but for those who go on to beat Jerec and win the game as a darksider, the ending spells out in no uncertain terms that Kyle goes fully megalomaniacal, becoming a new emperor. All that’s left to do is brutally crush all dissent and brood over his lost humanity on his massive, lonely throne.
George Lucas revealed in interviews that Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader was a long-in-the-works scene that he’d always had in his head. The fact that Vader dueled with Obi-Wan Kenobi on a lava planet and was left maimed but alive was so widely known, in fact, that I distinctly remember it being nerdy playground wisdom among kids I knew at least a good decade before it happened exactly as they said it would in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. (This is notable for being the only playground rumor, ever, that turned out to be true.)
So it is no surprise that turning that scene on its head has happened not once but at least twice in Star Wars storytelling over the years. The first, hilariously, was actually released before the damn movie, when the Episode III tie-in game released on videogame consoles more than a month before the movie on which it was based. This infuriated me at the time, since it seemed like I needed to dodge spoilers from yet another angle. Players could unlock the ability to play the final lightsaber duel as Anakin, and thus defeat Obi-Wan in the last bout. The game accordingly jumps the rails of Star Wars lore, with an unscarred Anakin accepting a new red lightsaber from Darth Sidious before just impaling him with it and declaring himself Emperor.
Would Padme have escaped Mustafar without Kenobi’s help? Would Anakin have actually killed her, or forced her to raise their twin children in a life of totalitarian evil? It’s a great fan fiction writer’s prompt if nothing else.
The writers of the Darth Vader comic book also revisited the scene in 2015. In the story, Vader enters an extended flashback in which the story of his defeat on Mustafar is retold. Just as Obi-Wan points out that he has the high ground, we discover that Vader is wearing his armor and wielding his red lightsaber in the flashback. Using the full power of the Sith, he defeats Obi-Wan and leaves him a charred husk in the lava. I normally dislike anything that has to do with the prequels at all, but this is yet another instance of writers making hay out of them. This scene revisits an iconic part of the series lore in a way that paints Vader as driven by his insistence of childishly clinging to his resentments. It is grim and sad in equal measure, the perfect tone for any story about Vader.
Colin Trevorrow has made some bad movies. There is no reason to believe that, had he been entrusted with Episode IX, it would’ve been good. And yet the broad strokes that have been revealed to us make one ache for what might have been.
To start with, I need to state that I did not like Episode IX, and that in general it left me ambivalent on the entire trilogy. Among the major differences: Rose figures prominently in Trevorrow’s script, and Finn leads a stormtrooper rebellion on the streets of Coruscant. Kylo Ren broods on Mustafar, haunted by Luke’s Force ghost and before engaging in a duel with a phantom Darth Vader. Both Rey and Ren’s goal is to put an end to the Jedi and Sith, and their disagreement on how leads them to a final battle between the two. Leaked concept art seems to indicate Rey was going to rock a double-bladed blue lightsaber, just like damn near anybody who was paying attention to her propensity for staff fighting might have predicted. Most importantly, Rey was still going to be a nobody and Palpatine was going to be nowhere in evidence.
All told, a lot of this stuff sounds like a perfectly serviceable way to cap off this trilogy, with story beats and concepts whose absences fans have complained of unbidden—indeed, it’s hard to imagine more frustration with the sequel trilogy, and all of it stemming from the fact people loved the characters and mostly hated how they were treated. Would this script have stuck the landing? Like all of these other strange what-ifs, we can never really know.
My top three alternate timelines represent three essential approaches to the question of why you make an alternate Star Wars timeline in the first place: To ret-con something, to continue the story of that “perfect” original trilogy, or to take the baseline idea that is Star Wars and totally reimagine it. The resurrection of Ahsoka Tano is an example of that first type of alternate timeline. It just also so happens to be the “canon” timeline we’re now in.
I’ve said before that I hate the damn cartoons, but I can’t deny the enthusiasm for Ahsoka’s character that so many Star Wars fans have espoused over the years. A lot of the stories in the Star Wars cartoons are dopey or lame, but Ahsoka has, over the course of several seasons of television, gone on tons of exciting adventures. This unfortunately had to end with her death at the hands of her former master—Star Wars canon demanded it.
But you know what? Nuts to that. In the Season 4 episode “A World Between Worlds,” Ezra, who has mastered the ancient Jedi power of Force Being-an-Annoying Little-Shit-Who-Happens-to-Be-Around-While-Cooler-Characters-Are-Doing-Cooler-Things, reaches back through time and snatches Ahsoka away from her fateful, losing battle with Darth Vader. It’s ensured a future where the character can forge ahead, out from under the looming inevitability of a tragic demise, and be portrayed by Rosario freaking Dawson in The Mandalorian, proof that we are all at least not living in the absolute worst possible timeline.
Go ahead and drag me for not giving this #1, folks. But just remember when you make something canon, you accept all the bad along with all of the good. In many ways, the so-called “Legends” canon—that is, the books, videogames, comics, and sundry other tie-ins that began with author Timothy Zahn’s novel Heir to the Empire in 1991 before eventually being declared non-canon in the run-up prior to 2015’s Episode VII: The Force Awakens—is the full promise of an alternate Star Wars story path after the original trilogy of films, taken all the way to its conclusion. In others it also is a doorway to total nonsense.
Zahn and an ever-expanding galaxy of other writers took the ideas laid out in the original Star Wars trilogy of films that ran from 1977-1983 and filled out a whole universe around them, often building on ideas that in the films were just (not very subtle) subtext. Launching with Zahn’s trilogy set five years after the end of Return of the Jedi, the dozens of novels, comic books, and videogames were all miraculously consistent in their chronology. If you picked up The Crystal Star by Vonda McIntyre or The New Rebellion by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, they would reference characters and events in Kevin J. Anderson’s Jedi Academy Trilogy or the books by Michael Stackpole starring Rogue Squadron. (Ask me how I know.)
This means that badass characters like Mara Jade and Corran Horn exist alongside hilarious bullshit like, for instance, Han buying a planet so he could woo Leia away from another potential suitor who is described as Space Fabio, from a part of space with starships so terrifying they could essentially have licked the Empire at any time. (Where the hell were they?)
This does not reach #1 because of nonsense like that, and because in a lot of ways, the tie-ins of the ’90s were the spark that ignited the litigious nerdiness fire that rages all around us to this day. It was inevitable that Disney would render all of it non-canon when it acquired the Star Wars property—what sane moviegoer who wasn’t steeped to the nostrils in this stuff would engage with it? What little kid wants to be told they don’t enjoy the laser swordfights as much as an adult because they haven’t read Death Troopers, the book about zombie stormtroopers?
Disney is apparently trying to declare Alan Dean Foster’s royalties non-canon. since it acquired Star Wars in 2012, and the author claims the Mouse has ignored all his entreaties. Disney’s argument, according to reports, is that they purchased the right to reprint Foster’s work but are not bound by the responsibility to pay him for it. So it is with some bias that I argue Foster—who worked with George Lucas almost right from the beginning of the phenomenon—actually authored one of the most interesting alternate routes for Star Wars.
My enjoyment of Star Wars changed when I came to regard it not as some pristine world whose rules I and only I knew best, but as an imperfect work crafted by many people and informed by grand artistic influences. Like The Lord of the Rings and its larger universe, it is a living thing that has never really been complete. So it’s fascinating to look at Foster’s novel, written in between when that 1977 film called just Star Wars debuted and when The Empire Strikes Back entered theaters and really made Star Wars into the universe we know today.
One of the uncertainties heading into Empire was whether or not Harrison Ford would return for the sequels. Foster’s contract allowed for his sequel novel, which was published not even a year after Star Wars first hit theaters, to be filmed, and therefore could have served as the basis for all Star Wars going forward. It was accordingly written without a lot of the core assumptions we take as holy writ: Luke and Leia are not siblings (and Foster hints at potential romance between them). Darth Vader is not Luke’s father, but still a fearsome shock trooper of the Empire.
The story follows Luke and Leia on one mission gone awry, crash landing them on a mining planet with a secret Imperial base and a long-lost relic, the “Kaiburr crystal,” the MacGuffin which brings the young rebels and Darth Vader into conflict. It’s a gritty, down-to-Earth kind of story, and it’s really fascinating to wonder how it would’ve looked had Lucasfilm committed to it. It would have grounded Star Wars as a whole in a much more pulp-adventure feel (assuming audiences responded to it as enthusiastically as they did for the original, that is). Which is to say that it is way braver than anything Disney’s stewardship of the franchise has given us.
The Empire Strikes Back was ultimately a pretty daring sequel in its own right, but what a different thing Star Wars would be if it had gone this way. Let us hope we’re living in the timeline where Disney will not be allowed to set a legal precedent that allows a publisher to buy the rights to an intellectual property without the responsibility of paying the people who made it what it is.
Kenneth Lowe is telling the truth from a certain point of view. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.